La Langue Est Gardienne: Language and Identity in Franco-American Literature

By Pinette, Susan | Quebec Studies, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

La Langue Est Gardienne: Language and Identity in Franco-American Literature


Pinette, Susan, Quebec Studies


Despite the increasing dominance of English, the ability to speak French remains an important touchstone of Franco-American identity. (1) Proximity to home and relative ease of travel ensured that many Franco-Americans remained connected to Quebec long after migration (Leblanc, Richard) and many among the Franco-American elite remained committed to traditionalist discourses of French Canadian nationalism (Leblanc, Roby). Despite shifts and changes in these discourses, language in many Franco-American communities, like Quebec, remains intimately tied to identity. (2) Unlike Quebec, however, French does not delineate public space for many Franco-Americans, and although if continues to articulate a private, familial space for a significant number, (3) the majority of younger Franco-Americans are heritage language speakers or monolingual Anglophones (Fox). Despite this steep decline of language proficiency among younger generations, speaking French remains a principal marker of authenticity. The centrality of this marker is easy to understand in older Franco-Americans, the majority of whom are francophone and grew up speaking French. (4) Yet the importance of French for Franco-American identity is also apparent among younger, anglophone generations. Many middle-aged Franco-Americans articulate their ethnic identity by claiming a connection to French, irrespective of language skills. Even if they never spoke French, learning French is often conceived as the reacquisition of a language lost, not as a new language that needs to be learned from scratch. (5) The correlation between language and identity is harder to discern in younger monolingual Franco-Americans, but it is their continued allegiance to the equation of language and ethnic identity that prevents many of them from self-identifying as Franco-American. Many younger Franco-Americans willingly categorize their relatives as "French" but without French language skills, they no longer feel that they are or can be. (6) While Franco-Americans may or may not be francophone, many nonetheless seem committed to the idea that speaking French is intimately tied to Franco-American identity. Franco-American literary production exists in this domain, heavily laden with cultural codes deeply rooted in French-speaking Quebec. This article will argue that even though French may no longer be the lingua franca of Franco America, it nevertheless retains its social significance within Franco-American communities, functioning as an important signifier of ethnic identity. I will examine the role of French in two recently published Bildungsromane by Franco-American authors: Le petit mangeur de fleurs by Norman Beaupre and American Ghosts by David Plante. Even though one text is written in French and the other in English, both authors use French to construct a Franco-American subject.

The Ethnic Bildungsroman

The novel of formation, or Bildungsroman, as Tobias Boes notes in a survey of the genre's recent critical interventions, "continues to thrive in post-colonial, minority, multi-cultural, and immigrant literatures worldwide" (239). Initially coined to refer specifically to a nineteenth-century German "poetic expression of the Enlightenment concept of Bildung" (232), the term was broadened through feminist, postcolonial, and minority interventions during the 1980s and 90s to include "coming-of-age narratives that bear only cursory resemblance to nineteenth-century European models" (231). In her foundational article, Marianne Hirsch explains that broadening the definition allows us to perceive "significant formal and thematic links" among different texts, distilling that the novel of formation "is the story of a representative individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order" (296). It is this aspect of the genre, Richard Barney contends, that continues to be a compelling narrative scheme for ethnic writers because "narratives of development promise the ability to explore origins, consider the viability of social roots, and reassess the prospect of social cohesion" (360): the novel of formation allows the ethnic writer to explore his or her formation as both "biographical and social" (Hirsch 297). …

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